We are a highly developed race, tried and tested through years of environmental challenges courtesy of natural selection. Through those many trials, we have developed mechanisms that help us assess our environment and react in an almost instinctive fashion.

In general, automatic reactions are great when they’re activated in the right context: they save valuable resources by removing the mental hassle associated with decisions. But while automatic reactions are useful when applied in context, the problem begins when they influence our decisions and actions out of context.

Let’s take our saliency detection mechanism, for example. It helps us prioritize relevant information and focus on one quick decision — the one that is the most salient. Unfortunately, it gets in our way and is responsible for several illusory correlations, including this frustrating fallacy:

How many times you’ve stood in line at the supermarket thinking that the other lane is progressing faster due to lack of progress in yours? I bet more than once. And how many times, after you’ve switched lanes, has the lane you previously stood in started progressing faster? Almost always, right?

The problem with this automatic reaction is that it tries to optimize our position, while it ignores several facts like our lack of control over the line’s progression rate (thank you Tom Stafford for this example and for inspiring this post).

There are many automatic reactions that work with and against us while we complete tasks and strive to be more productive. Below are the three habits you need to master in order to get more control over your automatic responses.

1. Determine the lane you’re going to stand in and stay there!

Trying to reaffirm your choices on a regular basis leaves you exhausted.

You may think switching between tasks (or lanes) will help you progress faster, but you’re quite wrong. Your brain is just pulling a fast one on you, convincing you that you can do things better if you’ll finish them later and move on now.

When you’re constantly switching tasks, you spend more energy on skipping then you spend on doing. Sticking to your chosen path saves a lot of energy on several levels.

First, you don’t waste energy thinking about alternatives, you focus your energy on completing one task. Second, you don’t need to invest energy on new beginnings. Third, you don’t feel guilty because you’ve left something open, resulting in better focus on the task at hand.

The solution as you probably guessed by now is quite simple: plan your tasks and execute them one task at a time.

2. Focus on yourself and don’t compare between lanes.

When you’re stuck, you have a feeling that everyone around you is moving forward. This happens because our brain is calibrated to be self-centered.

When everything runs smoothly, you don’t pay attention to your surroundings; you focus on the actions you’re about to make. When you’re focused on doing rather than comparing, things tend to get done.

The problem begins when there’s friction, when things don’t progress as we anticipated and we begin to look around for explanations and clues as to why everyone else is moving and we are not. But this is really just a distraction. So, instead of looking at what other people are doing, have a little faith in yourself and discover your own worth.

3. All lanes are the same.

Most of the time, we are the ones who are holding ourselves back. External influences almost never prevent us from reaching our goals. Sure, they might hold us back for a while, but they can never stop us from completing a task once we set our minds on finishing it.

Since we are our own worst enemies, we need to evaluate our condition using real-world parameters, like time and effort, while ignoring interruptions that offer an easy way out. One of the most talked about interruptions that prevents us from finishing tasks is FOMO, or fear of missing out. FOMO makes it really hard to focus on one thing because, according to our perception, there’s high chance we’re missing out on something.

Dropping everything mid-task and moving onto something else will almost always backfire. It will most likely create a backlog of incomplete tasks and increase your stress and frustration. Not giving into FOMO and staying painfully honest with yourself is a must, otherwise the only thing you will truly miss out on is your goal completion.

Until next time, be polite and wait in line!

There are so many lessons I wish I had learned while I was young enough to appreciate and apply them. 10 Life Lessons People Should Learn Before They Turn 30

Featured photo credit: Uninenvia Flickr

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